Spike in assaults leads US violent crime rate to first increase since '93

A 22 percent spike in the number of aggravated and simple assaults drove the violent crime rate in the US up 17 percent in 2011. But it is still vastly lower than it was two decades ago, experts note.

A spike in the number of assaults last year is being blamed for driving up the violent crime rate in the United States, the first year-to-year increase in nearly 20 years. However crime experts say it is too early to determine if the Justice Department data represent a significant trend in violence.

A report released Wednesday by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics shows the rate of violent crime among victims 12 or older increased 17 percent in 2011 from the previous year, a finding that stopped the historic decline since 1993.

Results from the annual National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) show that the number of rapes, sexual assaults, and robberies was relatively unchanged last year, but that the largest driver of violent crime in 2011 was a 22 percent increase in the number of both aggravated and simple assaults. Aggravated assault involves the willful intent to cause serious physical injury, with or without a weapon. A simple assault does not involve weapons or serious injury.

Other increases last year were in total property crime, such as burglary, theft, and motor vehicle theft (11 percent), and household burglary (14 percent). The survey does not track homicides or arson.

While a double-digit jump in violent crime is significant, most criminal justice experts say that the total crime rate remains significantly lower than it was two decades ago. The survey itself notes that “crime still remains at historical low levels” and that the total rate of violent victimization dropped 72 percent since 1993.

“A 17 percent increase is a pretty small rate relatively to where we were 20 years ago. That’s important to remember,” says William Pridemore, a criminal justice professor at Indiana University in Bloomington. As for whether the increase in assaults could represent a growing trend, Mr. Pridemore says “it’s way too early for scholars to know” the reasons for the uptick and that more years representing a similar reversal would be needed.

The reduced crime levels since the 1990’s are giving law enforcement officials and policymakers time to develop and test strategies that are trending away from more punishment-oriented solutions to those that assess the public health factors that create violence, says Harold Pollack, co-director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, a research organization studying gun violence at the University of Chicago.

“Twenty years ago we knew what it was like to live through periods of high crime, and it was terrible. If we get another bad crime wave, my fear is we’ll react in a more punitive way and miss the opportunity to learn what is effective when the public is ready to try different things,” Mr. Pollack says.

Survey results like those released Wednesday are valuable for charting trends, Pollack says, but they are not helpful in addressing the broader factors related to crime such as the level of educational opportunities for urban youth, the number of police on the street, and the ways incarcerated criminals transition back to normal society.

Through NCVS data, “we want an appropriate sense of urgency without public fear about what’s going on,” Pollack says. “But these numbers themselves don’t directly tell us what to do” related to policy that can create solutions.

The NCVS report is the largest survey of its kind in the US and is often used in conjunction with the annual FBI Uniform Crime Report, which is expected later this month. The FBI report, which does not track simple assaults, tabulates data from police departments across the country, while the NCVS report surveys victim households. The 2011 report tracked 79,800 households and interviewed 143,120 people.

The NCVS report is considered helpful for providing a more comprehensive snapshot of crimes that are not reported to police. In 2011, at least half (49 percent) of all violent crimes and only 37 percent of property crimes were reported to police. 

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